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  • Akisam Mukisa

From Civil Unrest to Military Intervention: Recent African Coups Explored

There have been so many coups in Africa recently. Countries in West and central Africa have had military takeovers since 2020, and they're all former French colonies. Some of these countries, we've seen big crowds protesting against France, but what connections can we really make between what's happening in these countries, and where do France and Russia fit in?


These are the six countries we're talking about: Mali, Burkina Faso, Chad, Guinea, Niger, and Gabon are all now being run by military leaders after the Army kicked out the civilian government. Niger and Gabon are the most recent. In all of these places, we've generally seen popular support for the coup leaders, although the idea that they're all just motivated by the public interest is a bit simplistic in the eyes of many observers. They have conducted these coups very much as a cynical power play.



Its hard to make simple comparisons that apply neatly to all six places; each country has its own particular context. In Gabon, for example, the trigger for the coup was the contested re-election of President Ali Bongo. His father had ruled for decades before him, and Bongo was accused of rigging the vote. A lot of people celebrated what they see as the end of The Bongo era.



Foreign was a democratically elected leader; his election in 2021 was the country's first civilian-to-civilian transfer of power. One explanation for the coup in July is that it was a straight-up power struggle; the zoom was making changes to the military leadership, and one of his generals, after Rahman Ciani, turned on him when there were rumors that his job was on the line. So, it's easy to find differences between the various coups when you look at the local context and the specific conditions in each country, but there are also some common themes that can help us make sense of what's going on.


First up, the feeling that the civilian governments in these countries just weren't delivering. Remember, these are some of the poorest countries in the world. Most of them have valuable natural resources. For example, Gabon and Chad have oil, Niger and Mali have uranium, Guinea and Burkina Faso have gold and other minerals. But that wealth hasn't been reaching ordinary people; there is a general disenchantment with the way that Democratic elites have handled power. The common thread of all these coups in West Africa and central Africa basically are economic stagnation, corruption, and insecurity.



That brings us to our second theme: the security problems that these countries face. It's especially bad in Mali, Burkina Faso, and Niger; they're all in a region called the Sahel, which has become a stronghold for armed groups linked to Al-Qaeda and ISIL. According to one report, almost half the deaths from terrorism around the world in 2022 happened in the Sahel. That was more than South Asia, the Middle East, and North Africa combined. As the security and humanitarian crisis has skyrocketed in the Sahel, the populations have become increasingly impatient with the ineptitude and failings of their own governments.


In Mali, Burkina Faso, and Niger, the coup leaders have held up the security situation as part of their justification for taking power. This is what they said in Niger: 'What's the difference? It is now.'

The last common theme is a big one, and it's the upswell in opposition to France and its role in the region. France is the old colonial power here, so we're talking about a relationship that's rooted in a history of exploitation, one that goes all the way back to the slave trade. A lot of people feel that the exploitation hasn't stopped and continues in new ways, what's sometimes called neocolonialism. It's this idea that France maintains an unequal relationship with its former colonies in a way that prioritizes its own political and economic interests.


One example that often comes up is how French companies are heavily involved in mining the natural resources of these countries, for example, operating Niger's uranium mines and extracting the uranium that France needs for its nuclear power plants. Now, those exports do generate revenue for Nigeria's government. France has also been one of the biggest donors of aid to the region, so there are different layers to what's going on. But still, the backlash against what many see as France's outsized influence in its former colonies is something that's come up in several of the recent coups. Because the previous civilian leaders were often seen as being too cozy with France.


Another aspect of the Anti-French mood has to do with the security threat in the Sahel that we mentioned. France has been one of the main Western countries to send troops to fight the armed groups there. It first sent soldiers to Mali in 2013 and had some success at the beginning, but even after several years of French boots on the ground, things weren't really improving much. Those Jihadi groups have actually become more powerful on the ground as they've exploited local community disputes. So, the people have seen France's intervention and then connected the dots and said, 'Well, you've intervened, but things have actually got worse.'


People started to see as if France was playing double sides, that they are feeding these conflicts and trying to take benefit from it. That is, of course, no proof of that, but a lot of people throughout the region believe that. This is a narrative that many of the coup leaders have also used to their advantage. They've placed themselves pretty firmly on the anti-French, anti-colonial side to win public support.


Those military factions saw which way the wind was blowing and have used anti-French sentiments to bolster their own credibility. The leaders in Mali and Burkina Faso have pushed out all French troops, and the Niger leaders had called for France to withdraw the one-and-a-half thousand French soldiers there.


Now, in parallel with that anger that we've been seeing directed towards France, there's also something else going on, and that's growing support for Russia. After some of the coups, we also saw big crowds waving Russian flags. Where you have had France being driven up, that vacuum has been filled by Russia.


Russia has a long history of courting African states since the Cold War, and part of its interventions, even in that era, were couched in anti-colonialist rhetoric. I think one of the main ways that Russia has grown its influence has been through the Wagner group, a private military company with ties to the Russian government. It provides governments with soldiers, often in exchange for access to natural resources.


The Wagner group is not just a mercenary group; it's also a logging company, it's also an information communication company, it's mining; it's also serving a purpose for these governments in the region that seek alternative partnerships to the West. Wagner has been active in several African countries, including Mali since 2021. The coup leaders there brought in Wagner mercenaries to help fight against the armed groups in the Sahel.


In Burkina Faso and Niger, there's been talk about the military leaders bringing Wagner forces too, although so far, there's been no confirmation of that. The future of the Wagner group in Africa just became a lot harder to predict since Wagner's leader, Evgeni Pogosian, was killed in a plane crash in Russia. A lot of people suspect President Putin may have orchestrated that crash to take revenge for a mutiny that Pogosian led against the Russian state in June. The Kremlin has denied playing any role in his death.


So when you look at the forces that play with all these coups in Western and central Africa, there's a lot going on. You've got the domestic issues in each country; you've got regional issues like the security challenges in the Sahel. Then there are these bigger geopolitical forces too, the pushback against France and Russia's own ambitions to grow its influence. It's all adding up to this sense that coups are in the air, and the big question is whether more countries will follow."


Sudan (April 2019): The Sudanese coup in April 2019 marked the end of President Omar al-Bashir's three-decade rule, driven by widespread protests demanding democratic reforms. The military's intervention led to hopes for a civilian-led government, but the transition has been fraught with challenges, revealing the complex path to lasting democratic change.



Mali (August 2020): The coup in Mali occurred amid protests against President Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta's alleged corruption and mismanagement. While some celebrated his removal, the coup underscored the fragility of democratic institutions and regional vulnerability to political upheaval.



Guinea (September 2021): In Guinea, a military-led coup ousted President Alpha Condé following his controversial third term. The coup raised questions about democratic governance in West Africa and the role of military intervention in political transitions.


Chad (April 2021): Chad faced a coup attempt following the sudden death of President Idriss Déby, revealing the challenges of political transition and succession in countries with long-serving leaders.



Madagascar (May 2021): Madagascar experienced a coup attempt that exposed underlying political tensions, emphasizing that instability can emerge even in countries with a history of relative political stability.


The political, social, and economic implications of these coups for the countries and the region as a whole.


Political Implications:

Erosion of Democracy: Coups often result in the suspension of democratic processes and institutions. In countries where democratic transitions were underway, like Mali and Sudan, coups disrupted the path toward democratic governance. This can undermine the credibility of democratic institutions and delay progress in building democratic norms and practices.


Political Instability: Coups contribute to political instability, as they frequently lead to power vacuums and struggles for control. These power struggles can escalate into prolonged conflicts or even civil wars, as seen in Mali, which has struggled with ongoing security challenges following the 2020 coup.


Authoritarian Rule: In some cases, coup leaders consolidate power and establish military or authoritarian regimes. This shift away from democratic governance can lead to human rights abuses, restrictions on civil liberties, and limited political participation.


Social Implications:

Human Rights Concerns: Coups often result in human rights violations, including arbitrary arrests, suppression of free speech, and violence against civilians. This can have a lasting impact on the population, fostering fear and distrust within society.


Displacement and Migration: Political instability stemming from coups can lead to internal displacement and external migration. People may flee their homes due to violence or insecurity, contributing to humanitarian crises within the affected countries and straining neighboring nations.


Economic Implications:

Investment and Aid: Coups often result in decreased foreign investment and aid. International partners may impose sanctions or reduce economic support in response to coup-related instability, affecting economic development and recovery efforts.

Resource Diversion: Governments in the aftermath of coups may redirect resources toward security and military spending, diverting funds away from essential social services like health, education, and infrastructure development.


Economic Uncertainty: Coups create economic uncertainty, deterring both domestic and foreign investment. Businesses may be hesitant to operate in politically unstable environments, leading to reduced economic growth and job opportunities.


Regional Implications:

Regional Instability: Coup-related instability can spill over into neighboring countries, as seen with Mali's impact on regional security in the Sahel. This instability can exacerbate regional conflicts, complicate cross-border trade, and strain diplomatic relations.


Refugee Flows: Regional neighbors may face an influx of refugees fleeing political instability, placing a burden on host nations' resources and infrastructure.


Regional Organizations: Regional organizations like the African Union (AU) and the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) often respond to coups by suspending or sanctioning the offending country. These organizations play a crucial role in mediating conflicts and seeking peaceful solutions.


How international actors, such as neighboring countries and global organizations, have responded to these coups.


Global Organizations:

African Union (AU): The AU has a strong stance against coups and often suspends the membership of the affected country until constitutional order is restored. The AU may deploy diplomatic missions to mediate and engage with coup leaders, emphasizing the need for a swift return to civilian rule.

United Nations (UN): The UN may issue resolutions or statements condemning coups and supporting efforts to restore democratic governance. Peacekeeping missions, if present in the region, may adapt their mandates to address the new security dynamics arising from coups.


Common Themes And Causes Behind Recent Coups In Africa                                                    

Political Instability: Political instability is a recurring theme in countries experiencing coups. Weak governance, a history of political turmoil, and a lack of trust in political institutions can create an environment conducive to coup attempts.


Leadership Issues: Leadership issues, including authoritarian rule, attempts to extend presidential terms, or perceptions of ineffective leadership, have been triggers for coups. Leaders who overstay their mandates or show authoritarian tendencies can face resistance from both the military and civil society.


Economic Challenges: Economic hardships, such as high unemployment, inflation, and economic inequality, can fuel discontent among the population. Coups may be driven by the belief that a change in leadership could lead to improved economic conditions.


Corruption and Mismanagement: Corruption and mismanagement of public resources can erode public trust in government. Accusations of corruption or a perception of widespread graft within the ruling elite can motivate coup plotters who promise to root out corruption.


Military Grievances: Dissatisfaction within the military, such as low pay, lack of promotions, or grievances related to military operations, can lead to military involvement in coups. Military leaders may perceive themselves as guardians of national stability.


Ethnic and Religious Divisions: Ethnic and religious divisions can be exploited by political actors, leading to instability. Coup attempts may be driven by ethnic or sectarian grievances or fears of exclusion.


External Interference: The involvement of external actors, including neighboring countries, global powers, or non-state actors, can influence coup dynamics. Support or opposition from external actors can shape the outcome of coup attempts.


References:

Al Jazeera Africa (www.aljazeera.com/news/africa)

The Guardian Africa (www.theguardian.com/world/africa)

Africanews (www.africanews.com)

African Arguments (www.africanarguments.org)

AllAfrica (www.allafrica.com)

International Crisis Group (www.crisisgroup.org)



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